The Art of Meeting Multitasking

Guest post by Pete Johnson
istock_000006766855xsmallAs an IT teleworker for a large company over the past 10 years, I’ve spent my share of time on conference calls. The other day, in fact, I set a personal record with 11.5 hours of them in a single work day (and I had the sore headphone ear and hoarse voice that came along with that feat). Despite this meeting load, I still had to respond to IM’s, reply to a multitude of emails, prepare slides early in the day for a presentation later on, and a host of other tasks. That begs the question:
How do you effectively multitask in meetings in a way that lets you get work done?

When you can and when you can’t
First, you have to recognize where the multitasking opportunities are. Obviously, when you are presenting a set of slides or walking through some code to an audience, doing anything else is next to impossible. On the other end of the spectrum, if you were invited to provide details that might not even get covered to a broad group, there’s a decent chance you won’t say anything beyond introducing yourself at the top of the meeting.
Pay particular attention to the agenda shown at the beginning of the meeting. If you don’t have a copy of it, take a quick screen shot of it when it flashes by on whatever desktop sharing mechanism you are using if you can, as that will be your roadmap to multitasking potential. Take note not only of the segments where your opinion might possibly come up, but also be sure to mentally check back into the meeting every 2-3 minutes so you can assess where in the agenda things stand. That decreases the chances you’ll be caught off guard by a question when you weren’t paying attention because you were doing something else.
Short Tasks
David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach to task management is ideal for meeting multitasking since it breaks things down into short time segments. In using this method, whenever something comes into your inbox you assess whether or not it is something you need to keep for reference, something you can delete, something you can delegate to someone else, something you can take care of in less than 2 minutes, or something that needs a longer period of your time. Everything except that last category can be processed in the 2-3 minute time slice you create for yourself during portions of your meeting that aren’t as relevant to you as other segments.
Whatever task management tactics you use, there are always quick hitting items that need attention. Taking care of them while on a meeting where you can multitask keeps them from intimidatingly piling up.
Stop and Start Tasks
Some longer tasks lend themselves to being stopped and started in manageable intervals that can match up with those 2-3 minute segments you’ve carved out for yourself while the meeting is going on. Maybe you have some long technical article to read through that lends itself to stopping every few paragraphs to check back in with your teleconference. When a slide presentation needs to be prepared for later in the day, stopping after each slide is done so you can assess how far the meeting has progressed is another example.

Small Physical Tasks
Paper filing, desk cleaning, reloading your beverage if you have a wireless phone — these things are primarily physical rather than mental, and lend themselves to being done while you listen to your meeting. That’s not to say you should go dig the ditch for a new sprinkler line in your back yard while on the phone, but smaller things around the desk are ripe for multitasking.

What to do when you get caught
Make no mistake, if you frequently try to multitask during meetings you will eventually get caught. Someone will ask you a question and, because you were off multitasking, you won’t know what that question was. There are good and bad ways to recover from this situation.
Some will tell you to feign ignorance (“I don’t quite understand what you mean, can you rephrase the question?”). Others will tell you to pass the buck to someone else on the call (“I’m not quite the expert on that topic that Anakin is, what do you think Ani?”) However, the best way is to simply cop to it, but be careful about how you choose your words. There is a big difference between:

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention, can you repeat that?”


“I’m afraid you caught me multitasking on something else for a meeting with my boss later today, can you repeat that?”

Both make you look bad, but the latter makes you look less bad. And that’s the risk you run when trying to multitask: the possibility you could look bad on your current meeting weighed against the cost of not getting as many things done throughout your business day. If you approach multitasking opportunities with a plan, though, you can mitigate that risk and be more productive.
Pete Johnson created one of the first web applications ever built inside Hewlett Packard during the mid 1990’s and has had the good fortune to work with over 400 engineers all over the world, write articles for a variety of publications, and present topics at trade shows. He served as the Chief Architect for two and a half years before a reorganization brought him his present responsibilities as the Marketing and Internet Platform Services IT, Portals and Applications Chief Architect (try fitting that on a business card). He blogs about how improved non-technical skills can accelerate technical careers at